By MIKE NORTON
September has certainly been a dramatic month here in the Traverse City area -- great battalions of clouds racing across the sky; beams of thick sunlight lancing out of the darkness like the searchlights of alien spaceships, fierce showers of rain followed by interludes of almost summery warmth and light. Whew!
Local folks are fond of saying, “If you don’t like the weather here just wait ten minutes.” But this month you didn’t have even to wait -- you could look around and find several different kinds of weather going on simultaneously! Very beautiful, and exhilarating in a sort of “Wuthering Heights” way, but it’s been tough to figure out what to wear at any given moment….
Fall color continues to slowly make its way across northern Lower Michigan; I’d say we’re around 20 percent of the way to the season’s peak right now, and the maples (which give us the most variety of colors) are finally starting to get into the act. And although you can certainly cover a lot of ground on a driving tour, you’re not going to experience the full sensory richness of autumn unless you get out and listen to the crunch of leaves, smell the spicy aroma of apples and woodsmoke, breathe the crisp fall air.
One of my favorite places for a fall walk is just minutes away from my office, on the lovely grounds of the Grand Traverse Commons. By now, almost everybody knows about the great work that’s being done there, restoring the beautiful old buildings of Traverse City’s former mental asylum and turning them into apartments, shops, restaurants, and offices. But one of the best features of the Commons – and relatively unknown to outsiders -- is the extensive network of hiking trails that weave through the surrounding forests, fields, and hills.
With hundreds of acres of forested hills, spring-fed streams, flowery meadows and winding trails – not to mention the imposing, if slightly spooky walls and towers of the old asylum itself – the Commons has long been a favorite with hikers, joggers, cyclists, and birdwatchers. People come here to walk their dogs, kids gather autumn leaves here for their school projects; it’s kind of like Traverse City’s version of Central Park.
In a sense, that is how it was supposed to be. In 1885, when the state of Michigan was looking for a place to locate a new asylum, they chose Traverse City because they believed that fresh air and beautiful surroundings could ease the sufferings of the mentally ill. Walking the grounds was a big part of the therapy of the time, and many of today's hiking trails were actually laid out for the benefit of the patients.
For short jaunts, I enjoy wandering two of these shady trails -- the Men’s Walk and Women’s Walk -- both located just west of Division Avenue inside the city – but the best fall color is higher up, in the area administered by Garfield Township as the Grand Traverse Commons Natural Area. Here you can choose from an impressive variety of landscapes – from the fragrant shadows of the Cedar Cathedral Trail and the storybook beauty of the Streamside Loop to the steep climbs and panoramic views of the Old Orchard Trail, where you can look down over most of Traverse City, and the Copper Ridge Trail, which runs just behind it. There are secret springs bubbling out of the hillsides, deer, and fox peering out from the trees, and a multitude of birds.
Every season has its charms here. In spring the woods here are full of flowering trilliums, and in winter it’s great terrain for snowshoeing (many of the trails are really too steep for cross-country skiing, though that doesn’t stop some of us from trying). But the best time to be here is definitely autumn, when the meadows are full of asters and goldenrod, the old orchards still smell of windfall apples, and the leaves rain down on you like a Technicolor shower every time the wind runs through the treetops.
Even better, after you’ve worked up an appetite, you can wander down to the Left Foot Charley winery and quench your thirst with a tall glass of their deceptively refreshing cider. Yum! (I think I know where I’ll be taking my lunch break today.)